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Blue Chicken Lessons: Putting Student Perception to Work in Your Lunchroom

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bluechicken.jpgCheck out this blue chicken. Wanna rip off a chunk and chow down? No? I can't imagine why not.

This photo is actually the work of California artist Lawrie Brown, whose photos of common foods depicted in childish, primary colors are designed to "comment on the social, visual, and psychological aspects of food," according to her artist's statement. We love chicken! Inky blue is a fun, nonthreatening color! So why does it make us cringe when we see this photo? And what does that tell us about how we experience food? And why am I writing about this on a blog that deals, in part, with school lunches?

The photo actually illustrates powerful research that shows that how we perceive food affects our eating experience as much as the flavor of the food itself. Lighting, color, placement, and labeling can all cause us to feel more full or less satisfied, they can affect our perceptions of sweetness or caloric content, and they can prod us into making healthier choices, researchers have found. There's even a whole research laboratory at Oxford University dedicated to this sort of sensory exploration. In a time when schools are implementing new nutritional standards and finding creative ways to tackle childhood obesity, how might your school put this research to work to benefit the health of children?

This article in The Atlantic nicely summarizes some recent research published in the Journal of Consumer Research. Among the findings:

  • "Having a separate Health Menu lets people consider the Health Menu separately. They feel good that it's there, and then they proceed to order the same fatty stuff they wanted to eat in the first place."
  • "To the eating brain, harder-to-eat equals healthier-to-eat. The study fits neatly into a body of evidence that suggests that foods with rough textures feel heartier and healthier, even when they have the exact same nutritional qualities as softer versions."
  • "People eat more in restaurants when the temperature is cool, possibly because we need more energy to warm up."

How do we put these concepts to work when feeding kids? If we are to believe some lawmakers, upgraded nutritional standards introduced following the passage of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act have led to increased plate waste as children reject the vegetables and whole grains placed on their trays. (Some researchers have disputed those claims.) Researchers at Cornell University's Center for Behavioral Economics in Child Nutrition Programs have identified ways to put many of the same behavior principles to work in what they call the Smarter Lunchrooms Movement. Schools can "nudge kids toward nutritious choices" by applying some simple research-based principles, they say. This video explains a pretty easy idea.

 

Among other findings:

And I'd like to add one of my own: Don't serve blue chicken. 

Update: I've just learned there's a chicken with bluish black skin called a Silkie. I'm pretty sure kids won't eat that, either.

Photo: "White Rice" by Lawrie Brown. Used with permission.

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